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Research

Lack of fatty acid in blood linked to blinding retinopathy of prematurity in preterm babies

13/04/2018
A fatty acid found in the blood has been linked to blindness in premature babies, potentially paving the way for the development of new forms of treatment.

According to researchers from Sahlgrenska Academy in Sweden, low levels of arachidonic acid in the blood could be the cause of the blinding disease retinopathy of prematurity (ROP).

“Seeing such a strong connection between arachidonic acid levels and ROP is something that is entirely new. However we looked at the data, it’s always low levels of arachidonic acid that is most clearly associated with the disease,” co-author Associate Professor Chatarina Löfqvist said.

“What we believe and hope is that providing the children with arachidonic acid will raise the levels and reduce the amount of ROP to minimise the risk of children becoming blind.”

Sweden screens thousands of children each year for ROP, a disease that leads to vision impairment or blindness in extremely premature babies due to underdeveloped retinal blood vessels and in some cases, subsequent retinal detachment.

In the current study, researchers investigated the levels of about 20 different fatty acids in the blood of 90 children born before 28 weeks of gestation.


"We believe that it’s important that the premature babies receive this fatty acid as a supplement."
Ann Hellström, Sahlgrenska Academy

The fact that arachidonic acid, part of the omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid family, stood out so clearly as a link during the study surprised the team led by Professor Ann Hellström.

High levels of this type of fatty acids are linked with heart disease and inflammation in adults. However, the researchers have theorised that the situation may be different during the foetal period.

“Arachidonic acid seems to be of special importance during the whole pregnancy as a building block for membranes,” Hellström said.

“The mother provides the foetus with arachidonic acid, which is at a much lower level in her own blood compared to the foetal levels. Therefore, we believe that it’s important that the premature babies receive this fatty acid as a supplement.”

This hypothesis is set to be tested in a new study involving 210 children at neonatal units in three Swedish cities; Gothenburg, Lund and Stockholm. Children will be given a supplement with a combination of DHA, an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid, which is also important for the construction of blood vessels and nerve tissue, and arachidonic acid.

Currently, the latter is not included in the nutritional supplements that premature babies receive immediately after birth.

“Many times new treatments are introduced on the basis of intuition and opinion, but the evidence is not always there. Now we have something entirely new to go on, a fatty acid that we had not at all expected to be important in foetal growth,” Hellström said.

“We found it by systematically surveying all fatty acids to find evidence of which were involved in development in both healthy and sick infants.”

The study was published in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology.



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